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How To Be A Successful Optimist. Principle No. 1

Last Sunday Mark Stevenson (Tweets), author of ‘An Optimist’s tour of the future’ gave a super talk on optimism at the London Assembly. Due to the fact that everyone loved it, we’re publishing his writing on the principles of optimism every week for the coming eight weeks.

This has been re-published with permission of the author.

All successful optimists, unsurprisingly, have an unashamed optimism of ambition about our future. To clarify, this is not simple wishful thinking that things will work out alright in the end, it’s optimism specifically tied to a goal – and a conviction that that goal can be reached with enough passion and hard work. It is an optimism that something can and should be done to steer things in a positive direction.

In short, successful optimists don’t feel embarrassed to say that things could be better. They have no qualms about imagining an improved world and advocating for it, no matter how much derision they may receive at the hands of the cynical. In short they are not ashamed to dream good dreams. After all, Martin Luther King did not stand on the steps of the Lincoln memorial and say, “I have a five point plan”. And his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis painted a vivid picture of a journey towards a world without racism already well in motion.

Articulating these goals brings the first test for the successful optimist. With cynicism being such an easy weapon for their opponents, successful optimists will soon have their ambition, and indeed their character, questioned. They will be accused of naivety, arrogance and stupidity, possibly all at once. And this character assassination won’t let up. In all walks of life, but especially in large organisations, successful optimists rarely triumph because of the prevailing culture, but in spite of it. I remember a cartoon placed in my cubicle on the first day of a new job for an organisation that I subsequently got fired from: it was a warning from an existing inmate. In it, three senior executives addressed the new boy. “We encourage creativity and innovation here Smith. First step: suit and tie.” The irony is that the very people trying to discourage or neuter innovators will later, in a convenient re-writing of history, offer up the achievements of these pesky optimists as proof that their organisation (or nation) has always embraced creativity and forward-thinking.

As a successful optimist many people will tell you your dreams are trivial. But they are profound. Quite simply, if you’re not prepared to dream something extraordinary you’ll never achieve anything extraordinary.

As Helen Keller said, “No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars or sailed an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.”